Rack pulls are one of those highly-controversial movements in the lifting world. You have those who claim they are good for nothing more than stroking one’s ego – and those who claim they are unequivocally superior to any other back movement.
The “right” answer, of course, will usually fall somewhere in the middle; and more importantly, it will vary from individual to individual.
But in this case, the devil really is in the details. How you perform the rack pull can make an enormous difference in the size and strength you’re able to build. I’ve actually spent a long time working on my rack pulls, and I want to share some of the cues that have really helped me to turn them into a brutally effective size and strength builder.
Setting Up Properly
A proper rack pull starts with the proper setup. You’ll need only the basics: a loaded barbell and a good power rack. The emphasis here is on “good”: you’ll likely be using a lot of weight with this movement, so it’s important that the pins of whatever rack you’re using can support that.
Now, when it comes to the bar, I strongly recommend that you avoid using a powerlifting-specific deadlift bar when performing rack pulls. That’s because a deadlift bar will bend quite a bit, especially when positioned on pins — so you’re shortening the range of motion even more, and that’s usually not optimal.
Speaking of range of motion, I suggest using a pin height that puts the bar below your knees at the start of the movement. Too high, and you’re shifting most of the emphasis of the movement to the traps – neither a primary mover in the regular deadlift, nor a lagging muscle group for most bodybuilders.
Lastly, you’ll almost certainly want to use straps so that your grip does not limit your ability to work your back.
Engaging the Lats
If there’s a secret to nailing a perfect rack pull, this is it. You must engage your lats as much as possible before initiating the movement. This is very similar to “pulling the slack out” of the bar on a regular deadlift, and it involves creating a lot of tension in the lats while letting the arms hang relaxed.
This can be tricky for beginners, so here are a few ways to make it easier:
- Try John Meadows’s lat activation movements in this video. Kinesthetic cues like these can really help to strengthen the mind-muscle connection on compound movements.
- Widen your grip. Widening the grip on a loaded movement like the rack pull puts a greater stretch on the lats.
- Squeeze with your little finger. This is a cue you can use on any pulling movement to shift emphasis from the arms to the lats.
If those techniques don’t help, try thinking about how you would set up for a strict barbell row: back flat, chest up, scapula neutral, and lats flared. That’s the position you want to emulate for a good rack pull.
Executing the Movement
As with most exercises, if you set up properly, the actual execution of the lift will largely take care of itself. That goes for the rack pull, too, although you’ll want to pay particular attention to bracing your core and keeping your chest high to avoid putting excessive strain on the lower back.
The execution cues I use are:
- Engage the lats.
- Brace the abs and breathe deep into the belly.
- Drop the hips and pull the chest up.
- Squeeze the glutes and pull.
There’s one last important note on execution: you must control the negative of the rack pull. Unlike a regular deadlift, if you drop a rack pull, there’s a good chance that the bar could end up bouncing off the pins and result in either injury or improper setup for the next rep.
A Killer Back Workout With Rack Pulls
This is one of the primary sessions from the upcoming Myoplasmic Growth Protocol, a project that I’m leading along with my coach, Justin Harris. Enjoy this brutal session:
- (Warmup) Dumbbell or machine pullover: 3 sets of 10 with a moderate weight.
- (Warmup) Rear delt swings: 2 sets of 20 reps with a heavy weight.
- Rack pull: You’re going to start light and work up to a heavy, but not max, set of 3 reps.
- Then drop the weight by about 15-20%, and do one set of max reps. On every rep of the second set, you’re going to pause briefly at the bottom to allow the weight to completely setting and help minimize the stretch reflex.
- One-arm barbell row: Do a hard set of 10-12, then add a bit of weight and do a second set of 6-8.
- Wide-grip pulldown: 3 sets of 12 with a moderate weight.
- On the last set, have a partner give you a forced stretch on the concentric, as shown in this video:
What’s your take on rack pulls? Post in the comments below!
Rack Pull FAQs
What is a rack pull?
A rack pull is a deadlift variation that utilizes a shorter range of motion to facilitate training adaptations. Rack pulls get their name because they’re often performed in power racks.
Why use rack pulls?
Rack pulls can be used for multiple reasons. Often times, rack pulls will be used as a way to overload the top end range of motion for the deadlift and can be useful for helping athlete acclimate to various loads. In addition, rack pulls can be great for focusing on lat growth and strength when using heavier loads and working to produce carryover to the deadlift.
Should everyone perform rack pulls?
Everyone can technically perform rack pulls, but that doesn’t mean they should. Rack pulls are a deadlift variation that are best used when matched with specific intent. If you’re working towards a specific adaptation and have been training for a few years or for a sport, then rack pulls can be useful.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from phdeadlift Instagram page.